While I’m recovering from the post-finals hangover, I figured that I would pause to give a few final thoughts on organic chemistry and what I wish that I had known prior to taking the class. I have written extensively on preparing for organic chemistry, so I won’t rehash all of that. But, there are some things that I learned recently that would have been helpful to know at the beginning of the year. Understand that there are no shortcuts to getting A’s in organic chemistry – it’s a difficult subject for most everyone and all the top students in my class worked really hard to get there.
- Learn the names, structures, and uses for the common solvents and catalysts early on, maybe even alongside nomenclature. My professors both tended to insert these into their discussion all the time and I found it a bit confusing sometimes. I definitely found that it slowed me down when it came to learning the actual chemistry
- Ignore all the advice you’ve heard about how memorization is the core skill required for this class (see below). This is somewhat of a hobby horse for me, but for good reason.
- If your class uses a standardized final as mine did, start reviewing early. In particular, for the cumulative ACS organic chemistry final, I started studying about two weeks beforehand and still found myself wishing that I’d had more time to review. This really showed in my score. I absolutely crushed the parts that I’d reviewed, but got shellacked on the sections I hadn’t, even the ones which I’d seen relatively recently. Get the book early and use it. Review a section every couple of days for about three weeks and you’ll do stellar on the final.
- Organic lab sucks. If you have a good TA, you’ll probably learn a lot. If you have a bad TA, your days in the lab will feel like you’re walking around in a haze. In either case, you will spend a ton of time outside of lab working on lab reports. This probably depends upon the department quite a bit, but I’m pretty sure that it’s universal. Reactions almost never work as they should. IR and NMR will always include things you can’t explain and that make no sense. Just accept it, learn what you can, and move on.
- Get over the hype. Organic is not the lecherous beast that everyone claims it is. Do the work, focus on understanding over memorization, and don’t succumb to the drama of the people around you. I learned this lesson the hard way on our first exam. To be sure, there are hard subjects that require tons of pain and suffering to do well. Organic chemistry isn’t one of them.
- Organic chemistry should really be broken down into two halves. The first semester essentially sets up the basic rules, principles, and mechanics and gets everything arranged so that the deck is ready. The second semester is the part where you actually deal the cards and begin to play. If you don’t understand the first semester, then the second semester is going to be really hard.
I’ve written about how a reliance upon memorization will usually spell disaster, but there are a few things I want to add to that. In particular, there IS a role for memorization in organic chemistry, but it’s not what you think:
- Nomenclature is largely a matter of practice and working with it to become familiar. But the historical names can be annoying since they don’t seem to follow the same systematic rules. So, in addition to memorizing the names and structures of the principal groups, learn all of the historical terms accepted by IUPAC. Things like formyls, acetyls, isobutyls, etc. It might not seem like much, but it will make things a lot easier later. I still have to think through what acetaldehyde or formic acid are.
- Learn the pKa table to estimate different acid strengths. Do NOT take this as direction to memorize the pKa for all the acids you’re shown in the course – most books have tables that show the pKa of different groups in multiples of 5. Any higher resolution than that, and you’re doing it wrong.
- Oxidizing and reducing agents. This is really the one area of the course where you have to memorize things. A lot of oxidation chemistry occurs through mechanisms that aren’t particularly well understood, so you just have to learn them. It’s a real drag, since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason, but you have to be able to recall that things like potassium permanganate will oxidize an aldehyde down to a carboxylic acid and alkenes to vicinal diols. Start early on this and work with them enough until they become more natural. The ACS guide does a really good job at highlighting the important ones. It is unlikely you will ever be tested on the obscure ones. This is the only section of reaction chemistry that I saw in the past year which I felt memorization played a role.
There are literally zillions of study aids available for this class. Book companies have learned they can make tons of cash off of paranoid premeds that think the key to doing well is amassing stacks of review books. Most of those just rehash what’s already in the textbook. Most of it isn’t all that helpful since the key to doing well isn’t whats in front of you but your study habits, which most students, particularly college sophomores, believe are superior (they’re not). However, there are three books which I found helpful and would recommend:
- The Nuts and Bolts of Organic Chemistry, by Joel Karty. This is an excellent book which is intended for use prior to the start of your organic chemistry class. It’s essentially a review of the relevant topics from general chemistry and an introduction to substitution and elimination reactions. I cannot recommend this book enough. Take a good month or so over the summer to go through this – it will really help you feel at ease once the course starts.
- Organic Chemistry as a Second Language, by David R. Klein. There are actually two of these, one for each semester. I didn’t find much use for the first semester version, since my textbook explained the basic concepts fairly well. The second semester however was a totally different story. You’ll be introduced to dozens of seemingly different reactions, most of which are virtually identical. This book really helps bring out the similarities so that the hundred or two hundred reactions you’ll see next spring can be reduced down to about a dozen. You may or may not find the first semester book helpful, but the second semester book is something you should pick up and work through it along with the class. I pretty much stopped using my textbook for the spring semester course and learned everything from this one – it’s that good.
- ACS Organic Chemistry Study Guide. If you’re required to take a standardized organic chemistry final like the ACS final, then you should get this book when you start the class and start looking through it. It’s broken out by section, but it isn’t linear, therefore you won’t understand a lot of it until you’re halfway through the entire course. But, once the second semester starts, you should make a point to look at the review book and check it out to make sure you aren’t missing anything.
That’s probably the last that I’ll write about organic chemistry, unless someone happens to be curious and asks me about something. Best of luck to all those of you taking it next year! Study hard, put in the time, focus on understanding, and you will get the score that you want. Even more importantly, you’ll actually learn some chemistry!